"THETFORD, comprises the parishes of St. Mary, St. Peter, and St. Cuthbert, it is a market town, municipal and parliamentary borough, having exclusive jurisdiction, but locally in the hundred of Shropham, county Norfolk, and partly in that of Lackford, county Suffolk, 12 miles from Bury St. Edmund's, 28 E. of Lynn, and 31 S.W. of Norwich. It is a station on the Great Eastern railway, which passes a little to the N. of the town. This town, which is a place of great antiquity, is supposed to have been the Roman Sitomagus, and was long the capital of the East Angles, by whom it was named Theodford, from the river Thet, a branch of the Little Ouse, which prising through the town, separates the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, and is navigable hence to Lynn. During the Saxon period it suffered frequently from the incursions of the Danes, who fixed their head-quarters here in 870, and slew Edmund, king of the East Angles, at Snarehill Park, a little to the E. of the town, where twelve large barrows still mark the scene of battle. It was made a mint town by King Athelstan, and so much recovered its ancient prosperity under Cnut, that at the time of Domesday survey it contained 13 churches and 944 burgesses. In the reign of William the Conqueror, the episcopal see of East Anglia was transferred hither from North Elmham, but was removed to Norwich by Herbert de Losinga, who commenced the building of Norwich Cathedral in 1093. In the reign of Henry VIII. it again became the seat of a bishop suffragan to Norwich, which it continued during his reign. On its reversion to the crown in the reign of Elizabeth, the queen rebuilt the mansion of the earls of Warren, and occasionally resided in it, as did also James I., for the purpose of hunting. The old house, situated in King-street, and still known as the King's House, bears the royal arms over the door, and is surrounded by gardens.
The town was once much larger than at present. It comprises five principal streets, partly paved, and is connected with the parish of St. Mary, on the Suffolk side of the Ouse, by a cast-iron bridge, erected in 1829. The principal buildings are, the guildhall, built in the reign of Charles II.; the gaol, now converted into a police station; mechanics' institute, with a library of 700 vols.; union workhouse; spa, or pump room; commercial bank, and theatre, now converted into a private house. At the eastern extremity of the town is an artificial eminence, called Castle Hill, about 100 feet high, 990 feet round at the base and 255 feet at the top, with a ditch 60 to 70 feet wide, supposed to have been once a Roman fortification. The population in 1851 was 4,074, and in 1861, 4,208. The principal business is in the malting and carrying trade, great quantities of coal and timber being imported from Lynn by the river, and corn, malt, wool, and agricultural produce exported. There are three large breweries, a tannery, large paper mill belonging to Messrs. Mackey & Watson, an extensive iron foundry, two agricultural machine manufactories, engine and coach building works, flour mill, bone-crushing mill, malting-houses, rope-walks, and extensive brick and lime yards. The subsoil is chalk and lias limestone, containing numerous fossils, and in the vicinity is an extensive rabbit warren. It was incorporated by Queen Elizabeth, and under the new Municipal Act is governed by a mayor, who is returning officer, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors, with the style of "mayor and burgesses of the borough of Thetford." The municipal revenue is about £1,200. The parliamentary borough, comprising the three parishes mentioned below, with the extra-parochial place of Ford Place, has returned two members to parliament since the reign of Elizabeth. The Poor-law Union contains 37 parishes and townships. The assizes, formerly held here, were removed to Norwich in 1833, but quarter sessions for the borough are held in the guildhall. It is the seat of a New County Court and the head of a superintendent registry district. Thetford gives name to a deanery in the archdeaconry and diocese of Norwich. The town comprises the three parishes of St. Mary, St. Peter, and St. Cuthbert. St. Peter's is a rectory, value £122; St. Mary's and St. Cuthbert's are perpetual curacies, value respectively £83 and £50. The church of St. Mary, situated on the Suffolk side of the river, is an ancient edifice with a tower and six bells. The interior contains a monument to Sir 11. Fulmerston. The church dedicated to St. Peter is popularly called the "Black" church, and was partly rebuilt in 1789, and has a beautiful peal of eight bells, also an illuminated clock. The church dedicated to St. Cuthbert is near the market-place, and has recently been restored. The Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, Independents, Society of Friends, and Roman Catholics have chapels. The charities produce above £1,000, of which sum £330 was bequeathed by Sir J. Williamson, in 1701, for apprenticing poor children, and each parish has about £70 per annum derived from the enclosure of the common, besides almshouses. The free grammar school, endowed by Sir R. Fulmerston, bears the date 1610, with the name of the founder. It has several exhibitions to the universities, and was the place of education of Thomas Martin, the town historian, and of Thomas Paine, author of the "Rights of Man," &c. There are besides National, infant, and Sunday schools. The antiquities consist chiefly of the remains of several religious houses and churches, the earliest of which are the ruins of the nunnery founded in the reign of Cnut as a cell to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmund's. Market day is on Saturday. Fairs are held on 14th May, 2nd and 16th August, and 26th September, for cattle and pedlery, and in July for wool."
Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)